What does equal opportunity mean?
Equal opportunity is often mentioned hand in hand with diversity. In fact, equal employment opportunities typically lead to more diversity in the workplace. Let’s take a closer look at both concepts.
Essentially, equal opportunity means that everyone has the option to freely participate in areas of public life, such as education and the workplace, without facing any discrimination. There is legislation in place that regulates every person’s right to equal opportunity and prevents discrimination and harassment based on certain attributes. Fundamentally, all employees must be treated fairly and equally in all aspects of their jobs and enjoy equal access to employment opportunities based only on their ability to perform the relevant tasks, regardless of their personal attributes such as gender identification, race or religious affiliation.
Diversity in an employment context means that you hire people from a wide range of different backgrounds. This can mean employing people from overseas or from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, or individuals of different ages, genders, ethnicities, physical abilities, sexual orientations, religious beliefs and so forth.
How is equal opportunity employment legislated in Australia?
In Australia, both federal and state laws regulate equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination in the workplace. As an employer, you need to be clear on your rights and obligations under the relevant legislation.
There are a number of important anti-discrimination laws that employers should be aware of:
1) Federal level
At the federal level, the Australian Human Rights Commission oversees complaints in relation to the following federal legislation:
- Australian Human Rights Commission Act (1986): gives the Australian Human Rights Commission the authority to investigate discrimination in the workplace related to, among others, age, race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, political views, social origin, medical history, criminal record, relationship status, disability, nationality and trade union activity
- Disability Discrimination Act (1992): prohibits discrimination based on, for example, physical disfigurement; physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, neurological or learning disability; disorder, illness or disease that affects the person’s thinking, perception of reality, emotions or judgement; or presence in the body of organisms capable of causing illness or disease
- Racial Discrimination Act (1975): makes it unlawful to discriminate against individuals based on race, descent or ethnic origin and, in some circumstances, immigration status
- Sex Discrimination Act (1984): prohibits discrimination based on sex, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, breastfeeding choices, family responsibilities, relationship status, sexual orientation and gender identity
- Age Discrimination Act (2004): ensures that nobody is treated unfavourably based on their age
2) State level
Although each state and territory has its own laws, they are largely very similar because of the standardising effect of the aforementioned federal laws. The relevant state laws are:
- Australian Capital Territory: Discrimination Act 1991
- New South Wales: Anti-Discrimination Act 1977
- Northern Territory: Anti-Discrimination Act 1996
- Queensland: Anti-Discrimination Act 1991
- South Australia: Equal Opportunity Act 1984
- Tasmania: Anti-Discrimination Act 1998
- Victoria: Equal Opportunity Act 2010
- Western Australia: Equal Opportunity Act 1984
These laws generally prohibit any discrimination in the workplace based on factors such as relationship status, pregnancy, sex, gender identity, sexuality, parental status, race, age, disability, religious or political belief, trade union activity, family responsibilities, as well as association with someone to whom any of these attributes apply.
Tip: Did you know that the government offers a range of financial incentives for companies who employ people of different ages, new parents and individuals with a disability? Find out all the details on the government’s official Business.gov.au website.
Why is equal opportunity important?
First, it’s important to keep in mind that even if one of your employees is found to be guilty of unlawful conduct, you as the employer will most likely be faced with fines if you cannot show that you have taken reasonable steps to prevent such discriminatory behaviour from occurring in your organisation.
But apart from the risk of financial penalties, there are several other good reasons why it’s important to offer equal opportunities:
Better pool of candidates
If you are openly inclusive, you are likely to attract a larger pool of suitable candidates than you would otherwise. Qualified applicants with a disability or from a non-Australian background, for example, may be hesitant to apply if they are not sure that they will be given a fair shot. But if you make it known that you are an equal opportunity employer, you will increase your chances of finding the perfect candidate among the larger group of applicants.
More creativity and higher-quality results
Working with a diverse team of employees enhances your business through different perspectives. A more diverse workforce naturally has a larger set of ideas and concepts to offer than a homogenous group. Take advantage of the different backgrounds and attributes of a diverse workforce and improve the quality of your output and results overall.
If you treat your current and prospective employees with respect and don’t discriminate, word will get around that you are a fantastic employer. Openness and tolerance are particularly highly rated nowadays. Creating diverse employment opportunities is sure to boost your employer brand. And employer branding is, of course, a huge asset in the employment market!
How to make your company a better equal opportunities employer
You’ll be glad to know there are many steps you can take to ensure that your company is an equal opportunities employer.
Practise what you preach
The best way for any policy to succeed is to lead by example. If the management team leads top-down, the rest of the workforce will feel reassured in their decisions and will likely follow suit. Besides, it’s always a good idea to practise what you preach! After all, you can’t expect your staff to do the right thing when it isn’t at the top of your own priority list.
Take a look at your job advertisements – are they perhaps only published on certain websites that are unlikely to be seen by jobseekers from certain socio-economic backgrounds? Do the job descriptions make it clear that you are an inclusive employer and encourage applicants from all backgrounds to apply?
Of course, removing barriers also includes physical barriers. Can your facilities be easily navigated by wheelchair users, for example? Can you adjust desk or sink heights for physically disabled staff as needed? Does signage size need to be adjusted or important documents need to be translated?
Removing barriers may also include giving staff the opportunity to work from home. Autistic employees or individuals with sensory processing disorders, for example, may find it challenging to work in an office environment full time and may perform at their best in their own home.
Training is usually a good investment for any employer. With respect to equal opportunity, all staff should be aware of your company’s equal employment policy and understand their responsibilities. This will guide them in their conduct and provide certainty when making hiring and other employment decisions, such as on promoting staff. Regular training in this area will also help your staff to fully understand the policies and become aware of any unconscious biases they may have, so they can tackle them.
Be quick to address complaints
Any business is well advised to put in place an anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policy and perhaps a whistle-blower system that encourages people to step forward if they feel discriminated against. If any complaints are brought forward by employees who feel discriminated against, address them promptly and demonstrate that you are prepared to take swift action against such policy violations in your workplace.
Related: How to Find Good Employees
If you keep these issues in mind, you’ll be well on your way to offering an equal opportunity work environment and attracting a wide range of diverse candidates. Also refer to our Hiring Resources for Employers for further guidance related to all aspects of hiring.